This might be the wild optimism of a Welsh fan in action but I’m struggling to find enough positives to make me believe that Sam Burgess will be a success at the 2015 Rugby World Cup held in England, which he longs to play in after his experience in last year’s home Rugby League World Cup. Maybe it’s the anti-capitalist in me hoping that Rugby hasn’t turned into football where buying players is considered the norm ahead spending time and money on developing talented individuals like Sam Hill and Tom Stephenson, both winners of World Cup’s for England at age group level. Recent history does after all show that even the payers who switch codes rarely go on to become super stars in both codes, only 3 really spring to mind; Sonny Bill Williams, Israel Folau and Jason Robinson. England have tried to convert a few League players to Union Centre’s, with mixed results, Andy Farrell was hampered by injury, Henry Paul managed just 6 caps for England’s senior side excelling instead at 7’s, Chev Walker played just 6 games of Union, Shontayne Hape received 13 caps but during a particularly successful time for England and Kyle Eastmond is currently occupying the 12 jersey for Bath, which Burgess is due to fill and fill amply next season. Eastmond has 2 England caps and looks more than promising, but the recent news has cast a fairly hefty shadow over his International prospects.
There’s no doubt he’s a phenomenal athlete there are umpteen YouTube videos to attest to that, he’s just 25, he is 6 feet 5 inches tall and weights over 18 stone, so he’s bigger than Jamie Roberts. His League upbringing means that he has the ability to offload whilst being tackled by 2 or more players but on the adverse side of that, not many players are going to try and tackle him above the waist and once he’s on the ground his offloading will be largely negated. Former Bath Centre and cross code International Shontayne Hape called Sam “Great Britain’s Sonny Bill Williams” when Burgess was just 17 years old, now I’m not sure of that’s a positive or a negative, he’s already got an awful lot to live up to and he’s yet to even play Rugby Union.
The negative points are that even England head coach Stuart Lancaster has gone on record saying that Burgess faces a “difficult transition” in order to be ready to represent England in the 2015 Rugby World Cup with under 12 months between his expected arrival in Rugby Union and the first game of the World Cup in Twickenham. Positionally it will be an interesting move, partly because in League Burgess is a forward and in Union he’s expected to play as an Inside Centre but also because by and large successful cross code players have tended to be outside backs, or at least inside backs in League. Normally in Union the 12 will lead the defensive line and since most Union defences are coached by former League players I can’t imagine Burgess will have a problem with that, where he may have an issue is standing so far away from the breakdown in the defensive line. With more players committed to the breakdown area in Union the inside backs aren’t as close to the action as forwards are in League.
One slight concern could be Burgess’ penchant to be over physical in defence, he received a 2 game ban from the NRL for a “squirrel grip tackle”, he has also received separate 1 match bans for other tackles, once in the NRL for a grapple tackle on Canterbury full back Ben Barba and in the World Cup for a high tackle on Sam Thaiday which some commentators would have been punished with an 8 game ban had it been in the NRL. During his time on Australia Burges has also missed time with injuries, a shoulder injury required surgery and saw him miss a month in 2011 and an ankle injury prematurely ended his 2011 season.
I’m slightly confused as to why England would feel they need another Centre at the moment, they’ve unearthed a gem in Luther Burrell who has scored 2 tries in his 2 starts in Test match rugby and they have Manu Tuilagi to come back from injury who himself has notched up 10 tries in 20 starts. All the talk has been of a creative influence needed in midfield and unless I’ve seriously misjudged just how much decision making League forwards are involved in Burgess won’t be the new Will Greenwood that the media seem intent on finding.
The last point is the most pernickety by far and not really anything to do with Burgess, more a matter of circumstance, Stuart Lancaster said in an interview he expected Burgess to be aiming for a Lions tour and the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Burgess’ deal with Bath is only a 3 year contract, which would take him to the Lions tour of New Zealand and a possible showdown with the aforementioned Sonny Bill Williams, but not to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.